Latest Information on Mission-Oriented Challenges in the Future Framework Programme
Mission-Oriented Challenges have been a much talked about but little understood element of the next framework programme. The latest report, ‘Mission-Oriented Research and Innovation in the EU’ was published by the Commission last week, giving the clearest indication yet of exactly what Missions will look like. The report is by Mariana Mazzucato, an academic at UCL. Since the 1st of January 2018, she has been a special advisor on ‘Mission Driven Science and Innovation’ to the Commissioner for Research Carlos Moedas. Thus, while her report does not constitute an official Commission position it is fair to say that it is very close to what that final position will be.
The report reiterates the principles of Mission-Oriented R&I, namely that economic growth should have a direction as well as a rate. In other words, growth can be obtained by the deliberate focusing of efforts and funding on particular problems. Technological breakthroughs, both intended and unintended, have often come when governments have decided to invest large amounts of resources to achieve specific goals. This mix has previously encouraged high-risk, high-reward innovation projects – exactly the culture that Mazzucato wants instilled into EU Missions. The oft-given illustrative example is NASA’s ‘Apollo 11’; the USA’s mission to land a man on the moon. This massive financial investment in a mission with a defined goal and a deadline (1969) demanded imaginative thinking from a massive variety of disciplines, and resulted in innumerate technological innovations. Contrary to the example of NASA, Mazzucato describes ‘European added value’ as coming from being civilian rather than military. Accordingly, the Missions deemed most appropriate for the EU are the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Mazzucato’s vision for SDGs is that they will inform umbrella topics such as ‘climate change’, ‘clean oceans’ and ‘citizen health’. Within these grand challenges the Missions themselves will be smaller, more defined objectives, such as ‘making 100 European cities carbon neutral by 2030.’ The hope is that government funding in these areas will incentivise private capital to co-invest in these projects, thus creating a virtuous circle of social growth. Furthermore such broad Missions will invite a variety of solutions from across sectors, actors and disciplines. They will therefore increase both R&I funding and competiveness, two areas in which Europe lags behind similar markets.
The report is steadfast that having clearly defined Missions means having clearly defined objectives. These objectives must in turn be tangible and realistic, albeit bold and high risk. The report therefore argues that impact should be the singular criteria for Missions, and that this impact should be quantifiable. This is so that it will be possible to say not just whether a Mission has succeeded or failed, but also by how much. It is within the framework of an entirely impact-driven agenda that the report proposes periodical review for projects, with designated milestones. These reviews can then be used to cut funding from those projects which have had limited success and look set to fail in their objective. ‘
It is hoped that with clear objectives and measurable success, Missions will be easily communicated to the public; showcasing the role and utility of European R&I. The question remains however, how can a funding instrument whose aims are genuinely world changing, make up just a part of the ‘Global Challenges Pillar’ in the next framework programme? This question was answered tentatively by Robert Fisher of DG RTD, at an event I recently attended. He stated that Missions are likely to begin their life within this relatively small structure, whilst the technicalities of how they will work are being sorted out. After this it is hoped that they will grow throughout the next framework programme and become much bigger and better funded.